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Lights in empty hotel rooms are turned on to create a heart in a large stucco building.
In the face of a deadly pandemic, vacant California hotels light up empty rooms that could be used to keep the state’s 150,000 homeless residents alive.
Photo by Daniel Knighton/Getty Images

California Could House Its Entire Homeless Population in Empty Hotel Rooms Right Now

Leaders have the authority to commandeer vacant hotels—but they aren’t using it

Listening to the radio in his car earlier this month, Joe heard California Gov. Gavin Newsom announce a new statewide program that would move homeless residents into hotel rooms to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Everyone seemed really concerned,” he says. “Even on the radio, people were saying, ‘Watch out as soon as this hits the homeless community.’” Joe was concerned, too, as he’d been living in his car since he was evicted from his Los Angeles apartment last August.

Joe—who didn’t want his last name to be shared—couldn't find more information online about the governor’s announcement. But last year, he had given his phone number to an outreach team at St. Joseph’s Center, a homeless service provider that has worked in LA neighborhoods for 40 years. In mid-April, he got a call back: Joe’s age—he just turned 72—made him eligible for the program, and there was a hotel room ready for him.

Now Joe has access to hot showers, three meals a day, and a reliable power source to charge his laptop. He’s a musician, so he’s thrilled to have a comfortable place to play his guitar. He’s also eligible for rental assistance, and plans to research how to apply for Section 8 vouchers. “When you’re on the road all the time, it’s really hard to keep that up,” he says. “I feel so lucky and fortunate.”

Joe is among the first of California’s 150,000 homeless residents to be given hotel rooms as part of a new statewide initiative called Project Roomkey, the same program he heard about on the radio that day. In the April 3 announcement, the state set a goal of securing 15,000 hotel rooms for homeless residents—specifically those who test positive for COVID-19 and don’t require hospitalization, those who have been exposed and need to be isolated, and those like Joe who are over 65 or have underlying medical conditions, putting them at greater risk of dying from the disease.

Three weeks later, the state says it has met its goal of securing 15,000 rooms, heralding the program as a success. But only a third of those rooms are currently filled, meaning about 3 percent of the state’s homeless residents have been moved into hotels. While the state’s goal falls painfully short of what’s needed, the governor and many mayors possess extraordinary powers at the moment to seize private property for public use. Using this emergency authority to commandeer hotels could house people more quickly—and in much greater numbers—offering safer, faster protection for the state’s most at-risk residents.

Service providers are eager to participate. When St. Joseph’s Center’s CEO Va Lecia Adams Kellum got the call last month that her organization would be able to start housing their most vulnerable clients for up to three months through the program, her team knew exactly who needed to get inside first. Using a standardized data-tracking tool, caseworkers were able to prioritize their lists of clients based on health history, disabilities, and age. Within five days of getting the call, St. Joseph’s Center had moved 119 people, including Joe, into a hotel on LA’s Westside.

The hotel staff takes care of housekeeping, the local nonprofit Everytable delivers three meals a day, and a team of nurses and social workers coordinated by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) stop by for health and wellness checks. “The pandemic makes things more complicated, but the need is more urgent than ever,” says Kellum. “The key is all of us working together to get through this by saving as many lives as possible.”

A handful of hotels currently housing homeless residents are proving that the state’s initiative—by far the most comprehensive of any state in the U.S.—can work. According to the California Hotel & Lodging Association, over 1,100 California hotels have volunteered 145,000 rooms to the state’s health department for COVID-19 efforts. But a growing chorus of homeless advocates, legal advisors, and medical experts say without the swifter action of commandeering, more people will become sick and die.

“There is nearly universal agreement that unhoused residents are extremely vulnerable right now, both in terms of risk of contracting COVID-19 and of having negative outcomes from the disease if they do contract it,” says Shayla Myers, a public interest attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. “Under the circumstances, commandeering property to bring unhoused people inside and de-densify shelters is no more extreme than issuing shelter-in-place orders and effectively shutting down most of the state to slow the spread of the disease.”

An estimated 80 percent of hotel rooms in the U.S. are currently empty, according to a report by STR, a data-forecasting company that tracks the hotel industry. Each night, in cities across the country, these hotels turn on the lights in vacant rooms to spell out words liked HOPE and LOVE, or display a single heart. It’s meant to show unity in the face of the deadly coronavirus pandemic, yet it literally highlights the empty rooms that could be used to keep people alive. Hundreds of thousands of hotel rooms sit unoccupied as the virus races across a country told to stay home—yet where over 575,000 people are experiencing homelessness on any given night.

Many U.S. cities are now attempting to use hotels to house people who are recovering from COVID-19 or need to self-isolate. But more cities are looking to hotels as a preventative measure to stop a disease which has started to rip through the country’s homeless communities, something experts say needs to happen immediately to prevent more deaths.

A study published at the end of March estimated that homeless residents infected with COVID-19 are twice as likely to be hospitalized and two to four times more likely to die compared to the general population—resulting in a total of 21,000 hospitalizations and 3,400 deaths nationwide. Moving unhoused people into hotel rooms could help prevent many of those hospitalizations and deaths, the study notes. “Emergency accommodations with private sleeping and bath space should be the preferred option for all clients.”

A tent on a sidewalk is shown in front of an ornate hotel in San Francisco.
Hotels are boarded up throughout San Francisco as the city’s homeless population continues to live on sidewalks.
Brock Keeling

On March 18, before Project Roomkey had been announced, Newsom said the state was speaking with 900 hotels about housing homeless residents. By April 18, Newsom’s office had secured 10,974 hotel and motel rooms, with 4,211 homeless residents moved in. On that day, Newsom stood in a parking lot of a Motel 6 in the Silicon Valley city of Campbell, California, and announced that the state was making 5,025 rooms from the chain available at 47 locations in 19 counties.

But whether or not those counties choose to fill those rooms is being left up to local jurisdictions.

Under Project Roomkey, cities and counties negotiate most leases directly with hotels, which are paid for in part by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds that are expected to cover 75 percent of the costs. Service providers in various parts of the state told Curbed that cities and counties are negotiating 90-day hotel leases for as low as $80 to $90 per night. With a new stream of revenue in place, the hotels are then able to rehire unemployed workers to provide cleaning services, operational tasks, and other managerial duties. A variety of subsidized meal programs are also available at the state and local levels.

Large cities including Los Angeles and San Francisco have since announced their own hotel room goals, some of which, if met locally, could end up doubling or tripling the state’s total number. But the move-in process has been slow overall, with a lack of information available for at-risk residents, and finger-pointing between cities and service providers for causing delays.

San Francisco, like Los Angeles and San Diego, had at first focused on moving unhoused people into large emergency shelters instead of hotel rooms. But shelters—along with other congregate living situations where people are sharing bathrooms, eating areas, and spaces to sleep—don’t offer protection against outbreaks of infectious diseases like COVID-19, says Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

“The CDC has guidelines for what they should be doing, but even if you’re following those guidelines it’s not a guarantee of safety,” says Berg. “If someone contracts the virus, there will be a risk to others.”

Last week, after the announcement of a major outbreak in San Francisco’s largest shelter, where at least 92 homeless residents have tested positive, county supervisors passed an ordinance that set a deadline for its 7,500 hotel rooms to be filled with homeless or at-risk residents by April 26—essentially ordering San Francisco Mayor London Breed to commandeer the rooms if the deals are not made. This would effectively house much of the city’s homeless population, COVID-positive or not. As of April 13, only 500 homeless residents had been moved into rooms, although city officials say the number is now over 700. The process has been so slow some supervisors are raising money through faith-based groups to move people into hotels themselves.

Chris Herring, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of California at Berkeley and homeless advocate in the Bay Area, says that San Francisco is taking the right approach overall. He argues that commandeering the empty hotels will save lives now, and being able to keep them filled until tourist demand ramps back up could give tens of thousands of unhoused residents enough short-term stability to allow caseworkers to place them into long-term housing after the pandemic is over.

“We should think of this as the ideal triage strategy,” says Herring. “Use the hotel as a pause to get people safe and see if we can meet their needs better than we could before. Then, as that hotel stock runs down, let’s fight like hell to get stimulus money, Section 8 vouchers, or permanent supportive housing.”

According to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, that’s the goal in LA, where the city has 36,000 unhoused residents. “In this crisis we have a new countywide plan to find thousands of hotel and motel rooms to prevent the spread of the virus among people experiencing homelessness,” he said in his State of the City address on April 19. “And once those fellow Angelenos come inside, they must not return to the streets.”

On April 8, LA County officials set a goal to fill 15,000 hotel rooms by the end of the month, with 1,340 rooms meant to be occupied at 15 sites by the end of that week. But by April 13, only 514 rooms at eight hotels had been filled. One week later, the number of occupied rooms stood at 749.

According to LAHSA’s Christopher Yee, what might be slowing down move-ins from the service provider perspective is the fact that the deals are “master leases” which require a buyout of the entire hotel property, meaning all existing guests must complete their stays before Project Roomkey guests can be moved in.

In his nightly addresses, Garcetti often asks hotel and motel owners to reach out, inferring that the city is still in need of rooms. But he has also said that there are plenty of rooms available and the slowdown is due to the service providers. “I would implore everybody who is working in the homeless services space… to continue getting people more quickly into these rooms,” said Garcetti on April 16. “It’s not about commandeering rooms, it’s not like there’s a list of 2,000 people and we only have 1,000 rooms, it’s the opposite.”

But many homeless residents don’t have information on how to access the program. The top online search hits for “Project Roomkey” are press releases from the state without any lists of resources. Several service providers confirmed to Curbed that since the Project Roomkey announcement, there had been an uptick in calls from potential clients asking when hotels might be available. Caseworkers at St. Joseph’s Center estimated that last week they received two to three calls per day asking about hotel rooms, and this week, after the Motel 6 announcement, were getting up to five calls per day. (Some homeless Californians are given hotel vouchers by service providers for temporary housing, which adds another layer of confusion.)

Local opposition to Project Roomkey has also surfaced. In the Orange County city of Laguna Woods, a hotel owner opted out of a deal to house homeless COVID-positive patients after residents organized a car protest. Residents of nearby Laguna Hills filed a lawsuit against the county to stop a similar plan in their city.

Last week, Newsom offered a stern rebuke of communities blocking Project Roomkey efforts, asking them to “consider their actions in the context and annals of history.” But Newsom has the ability to stop these neighborhood battles by commandeering the hotels himself, says Myers. “The power to commandeer property exists for just this reason—to prevent NIMBYism, market forces, and other external pressures from interfering with the government’s ability to protect its most vulnerable residents.”

Two people wearing masks standing in front of a W Hotel hold a banner reading ‘Hey Garcetti, Hollywood doesn’t need another death scene. Commandeer these vacant hotels for the unhoused.’
Members of the No Vacancy coalition staged protests outside hotels across California urging mayors to commandeer the properties.
No Vacancy

As the number of COVID-19 cases in shelters grows, a new statewide coalition named No Vacancy mounted a series of actions urging California mayors to use their emergency powers and seize the necessary rooms to house people. Standing in front of hotels up and down the state last week—many of which were built with generous tax breaks from cities—advocates held signs and banners that read “Commandeer these vacant hotels for the unhoused now” and “Fill hotels, not graves.”

One of those signs hung on a hotel in the Oakland, California, neighborhood where Delbra Taylor has been homeless for six years. The 68-year-old believed her age and a medical history of diabetes and hypertension made her a Project Roomkey candidate, but was dismayed that she hadn’t yet been contacted by outreach teams—even after she had spoken with state workers setting up FEMA trailers for COVID-19 relief nearby. On a video call last week organized by local nonprofits that raised money to get Taylor into a hotel anyway, she said she had cried when she spent the previous night in a room that she could see from the street where she lives in her car. “Last night I was able to move my body to be able to relax,” she says. “I have not been in a bed since 2014.”

Taylor expressed concern that without faster action by mayors to house homeless residents, the pandemic will disproportionately sicken and kill black Californians like herself. Only 6 percent of the state’s population is black, but black residents make up 40 percent of the state’s homeless population—and 11 percent of reported COVID-19 deaths.

“This is hitting the black race, but we’re out here and everybody is ignoring us? It’s not fair,” says Taylor. “You have all these hotels that are empty but you have all the people on the street where it’s hitting. We have no protection.”